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Iraq's Conventional Arms Supply Bigger Than U.S. Thought

October 17, 2003|David Lamb | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The debate over whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction remains unresolved, but U.S. forces said Thursday that the stockpile of conventional weapons from Saddam Hussein's regime was far greater than previously believed and that efforts to destroy them had been stepped up, partly to keep the arms out of enemy hands.

Brig. Gen. Larry Davis, commander of the search, said at a news conference that initial estimates that Iraq had 600,000 tons of conventional weapons probably were low. A more accurate figure, he said, may be 1 million tons. By comparison, the United States, whose population is 11 times greater than Iraq's, has 1.8 million tons of conventional weapons.

Iraq's weapons were bought from many countries, including the United States, over more than two decades, as Hussein put together what was, by 1991, the world's fourth-largest army. Most of the weapons were buried and are in an unstable condition, meaning that 65% to 85% will have to be destroyed rather than be used by the new Iraqi army.

Davis said he was instructed in June -- about two months after the end of major combat operations -- to draw up plans to find and dispose of conventional weapons.

John Chipman, director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said a triumphant army normally would be blowing up its enemy's weapons within weeks of victory.

He speculated that U.S.-led forces might not have acted that quickly because they were focused on finding weapons of mass destruction -- one of the major reasons cited by the Bush administration for invading Iraq. Depots could have contained both conventional and unconventional weapons, and blowing them up could have unleashed dangerous chemical and biological elements.

"The real security concern now in Iraq is the insurgency by jihadis and others," Chipman said. "There must be a fear that many of them could have access to arms depots, including manned portable systems, such as Soviet missiles, even American Stingers [missiles]. Those kinds of weapons would create a real problem for coalition forces."

Coalition commanders have placed a high priority on controlling the most lethal weapons, such as hand-held missiles that can shoot down helicopters and airplanes. There is a $500 reward for each Soviet-made surface-to-air missile turned in to allied troops. In an unidentified town north of Baghdad, one Iraqi recently turned over 200 SAMs to the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, officials said. The Iraqi promised to bring in 40 more.

"He showed up with just a couple of SAMs in his truck the first time," an Army major said. "I think he wanted to find out if we really were going to pay. When we did, he went back and returned with the others."

Davis, the weapons search commander, said coalition troops had found 105 major weapons sites in Iraq and were "finding new sites every day." There were "extensive efforts" to guard the sites, he said, but not all were under 24-hour protection.

The disposition of the weapons, which are being moved to six major depots, has been subcontracted by the Defense Department to four American companies. The contract will cost $285 million in its first year. In the last two weeks, the contractors have destroyed 1,250 tons of weapons and ammunition, said Davis, who estimated it would take three to five years to finish.

Munitions uncovered by coalition forces include explosives that could be used to make roadside bombs such as the ones used to attack U.S. convoys. On Thursday, one of those bombs killed a 4-year-old Iraqi and wounded her sister as they were walking to school in Tikrit, 80 miles north of Baghdad, wire services reported. Tikrit, Hussein's hometown, has been a center of anti-American resistance.

Witnesses speculated that the target of the bomb might have been a U.S. tank column passing nearby.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, a police spokesman said Thursday that Iraqi authorities had identified one of the suspects in the killing of Spanish diplomat Jose Antonio Bernal, Reuters reported. Bernal, an air force sergeant working with Spain's intelligence services, was shot Oct. 9 as he fled his house. Witnesses said three men were involved in the assassination.

Also, an explosion damaged part of the main pipeline running from Iraq's northern oil fields, decreasing the amount of oil available for export.

Separately, Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, threatened to resign from the Iraqi Governing Council if Turkish troops entered the north of Iraq. He said the troops would cause more problems than they would solve.

The council has denounced the deployment of 10,000 troops, approved by Turkey's parliament, because of fears that Ankara would interfere in Iraq's internal affairs.

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